Calgary fans don’t quite know what to make of the whole Dion Phaneuf situation, so how can so-called outsiders be expected to have a handle on the matter?
Opinions about the stop-the-presses Flames-Maple Leafs varied wildly, and that’s largely because opinions on the key component of the swap are all over the map.
To some, Phaneuf is a surefire Hall-of-Famer who has merely taken a slight detour on the road to a roomful of Norris Trophies. To others, he is Nuke LaLoosh on skates — (multi-)million-dollar talent acommpanied by a 10-cent head.
One of the most curious reactions comes from former Globe & Mail columnist William Houston, who is peerless when it comes to writing about sports media topics and should likely stick to that. In scoring the deal a victory for Brian Burke and the Buds, Houston offers one caveat — Darryl Sutter has closely watched Phaneuf for his entire career "and suddenly gave up on him after one lousy half season."
Houston presumably means the 2009-10 season to date, which actually qualifies as a slight improvement on Phaneuf’s career chart. Pointed questions about the heavy-hitting rearguard have been asked by locally based critics for several seasons now and it’s only now that some of the out-of-market types are catching up.
Further, anyone who uses the Scott Stevens comparison — as Hockey Night in Canada’s Ron MacLean recently did — when talking about Phaneuf is somewhat behind the times. As Mike Milbury was quick to point out when MacLean tried to draw a parallel between the two No. 3s, Stevens’ problem early in his career was that he was wild and out of control and that sometimes "his eyes rolled back into the top of his head." Phaneuf, on the other hand, combined his fondness for big collisions with unexplained episodes of passiveness and seeming indifference in the defensive zone.
Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun and TSN’s The Reporters came up with a real beauty when he suggested the Flames giving up on Phaneuf was like the time the Hartford Whalers pulled the plug on another talented rearguard who seemed to have lost his way a tad — Chris Pronger.
Discounting the significant differences between the two defencemen (Pronger has never scored more than 14 goals in a season while Phaneuf has already surpassed that total three times), let’s point out that Pronger was 20 years old when the Whale sent him to St. Louis (in exchange for Brendan Shanahan no less) while Phaneuf will be 25 in April.
TSN’s Bob McKenzie, on the other hand, made some excellent points in his post-trade analysis. For starters, with tongue in cheek, he suggested the Flames won the deal according to the team-that-gets-the-best-player rule because Ian White is that player. He then goes on to say that the true and correct verdict will come only when it’s ascertained if Phaneuf can bring his game up to match his talent level.
Wrote McKenzie: "Most pro scouts would suggest Phaneuf is operating in the 50 to 70 per cent range. The question then becomes, will he get there? To 100, or close to it, that is. Or maybe even more importantly, does he really want to get there?"
This is where opinions split on the deal. When Phaneuf’s potential is considered, the deal from Calgary’s standpoint is a risky one at best and an awful one at worst. When his actual performance is the prevailing factor (and if the opinion is reached that his career flatline is a chronic condition) then Darryl Sutter was wise to get something for him while he still could, especially if you subscribe to the theory that a change to the moribund Flames’ core was imperative.
While others mention Stevens and Pronger and Larry Robinson and other blue-line greats, there’s a possibility that Phaneuf’s career path will follow that of Ed Jovanovski. Like Phaneuf, Jovanovski made a huge splash early in his career as he went to the Stanley Cup final with the Florida Panthers as a 19-year-old. Any flaws in his game at that point were attributed to youth and many people foresaw Norris Trophies in Jovanovski’s future. But Jovanovski’s game never matured the way his supporters hoped. He has certainly had a very nice career, but he’s fallen a notch or two short of true greatness.
Jovanovski was only 22 when the Panthers handed him off to another club — the rearguard was the centrepiece of the Florida package that pried Pavel Bure out of Vancouver in 1999.
This latest Calgary-Toronto trade was a completely different sort of deal — the players the Flames received were more on the order of Pavel Brendl than Pavel Bure — but how will opinions on the move evolve if Phaneuf turns out to be a good but Norris-less defenceman like Jovanovski instead of the legend Pierre Maguire has always envisioned?